All posts by Melissa Kerr Chiovenda

Melissa Kerr Chiovenda is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Connecticut. She conducted a total of eighteen months of fieldwork in Afghanistan, in Bamyan, Jalalabad, and Kabul. She has an MA from Georgetown University's Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies program, and was a Peace Corps volunteer in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

A Bombing in Kabul and an Attack in Kunar: Assigning Value to Life

When I first got the news that a Lebanese restaurant in Kabul had been attacked by the Taliban on Friday, January 17, it was through a vague reference on Facebook from an acquaintance. Since I left Afghanistan in summer 2013, after having spent 18 months in the country since 2009 (and a full year in 2012-2013) doing anthropological fieldwork, this is usually how I first hear of such incidents, and I then eagerly await more news, either from social media or news websites. In Afghanistan, I mainly worked in the provinces of Bamyan and Nangarhar, but, when passing through Kabul, I did like to stop at the Taverna du Liban, the restaurant targeted. I knew the Lebanese owner, Kamel Hamedeh, and some of the staff working for him. The news finally came after several hours of anxiously checking back online that Kamel had been killed, alongside 20 more people, both foreigners and locals. It was, to be sure, the most deadly attack against foreign civilians in a single incident in Afghanistan. The foreigners’ names were released as quickly as possible. Those Afghans killed seemed to be forgotten. The guards at the front reinforced door all perished in the suicide blast that preceded the shooting of the diners, I know that for sure. I was not initially sure about the waiters. I later found out that all but one waiter escaped, as Kamel ran for his office, emerged with a gun, and shot at the attackers, giving the staff time to flee. This had always been Kamel’s plan, should such an attack happen – before I knew his fate, I remembered he told me this, and for those anxious hours I wondered if he succeeded. He did, at least, succeed in saving most of his staff. Who exactly the Afghan dead were was, during the period of several days when this made front-page news, a half-mystery. There were the three nameless guards in the front. Haji Amin, a young trader who was dining there, and his wife, were both killed. Other Afghan dead remained without an identity, even as the foreigners’ names are released and mourned. One Afghan journalist pointed out to me that it would take very little effort for any foreign journalist covering this story to contact a local journalist and find out names. Yet, it had not been done. I did find a photo gallery that included images of Afghan, although not foreign, victims. It seemed to me that the nameless dead Afghans were “safe” to show – how could their families complain? Wendy Hesford, in Spectacular Rhetorics: Human Rights Visions, Recognitions, Feminisms, writes of the way that images of Afghan girls, in both the well-known National Geographic image from 1985 and an Amnesty International USA campaign from 2002, serve to not tell the girls’ stories, but rather serve as a foil against which the West finds itself, and establishes its own “safe zone” in contrast with an exotic, dangerous place. Using images of Afghan dead and omitting foreign dead might surely fulfil the same purpose.

This incident has, for me and for many of my friends, particularly my Afghan friends, brought clarity onto the fact that while a foreigner killed in Afghanistan is big news, an Afghan killed in Afghanistan is barely worth attention. There was an outpouring of sorrowful emotions for those killed, but it focused on the foreigners. My own feelings, my concern for Kamel, someone I spoke to at great length, were only natural. Feeling stronger emotions when someone more “like you,” a fellow countryman or a fellow Westerner, or even another non-Afghan working in the country, is also natural. However, I strongly believe that it is precisely when something appears “natural” that we should know it must be questioned. The ranking of human life, whereby we sympathize with those most like us as being a natural feeling, is understandable, but this does not mean it should be accepted at face value. Rather, this means it should be questioned, problematized, understood, and possibly corrected. And in Kabul, there is a very clear delineation between those spaces Afghans can enter and those spaces reserved for foreigners only, as demonstrated by Jennifer Fluri in her article “‘Foreign Passports Only’: Geographies of (Post)Conflict Work in Kabul, Afghanistan.” Foreigners working in Afghanistan want space where they can let loose, party, drink alcohol, dress as they wish, and pursue non-committed romantic relationships, without the judgmental eyes of Afghans looking at them. “No Afghans Allowed” is sometimes a safety measure, but is just as often a way to keep foreigners comfortable when they take part in activities that many Afghans would find morally problematic. The result for some Afghans, who experience this exclusion from certain spaces, is humiliation, as they are barred from areas in their own country – and not even areas that are sensitive from a military standpoint. When one is member of a group (such as the foreign journalists who frequented the Taverna) that has more access to a world-wide audience, one must be careful as to how they portray a situation. One’s own feelings should be put on hold, and the larger picture taken into consideration. It is my opinion that many journalists failed in this respect when writing of the Taverna bombing. Afghans took notice. Many corresponded with me personally, demonstrating their dissatisfaction with coverage and social media memorials that overly concentrated on the foreign dead. Some wrote about this issue when they did have access to international media sources. And yet, they wrote of the bridge between Afghan and foreigner this incident had forged as some Afghans turned out in protest of the bombing, asserting that the foreigners in Kabul were their allies, hence valuable, and also perhaps realizing that the West did not wish to hear about the rest of the story. Others railed against the Western media in private, not having any other sort of mouthpiece.

The coverage of the story tended to follow several themes. One was slowly giving out the information of the attack, and paying particular attention to the foreigners killed. The fact that Americans and other foreigners were killed, in some news sources, became the headline, the most important factor. Some did write of the escape of the Afghan cook of the restaurant, Shukraan, in detail, describing how he and others made it out through the back or by jumping off the roof. Still, the Afghan dead remained largely nameless. Several journalists took this as an opportunity to focus on their own personal experiences with Kamel Hamedeh, the owner (who was, indeed, a courageous and fascinating man), and their own time at the restaurant. The restaurant was described lovingly, as a safe zone, but also as an exciting place, a place of intrigue, a place for interesting, special people – full of aid workers, Afghan officials, journalists, businessmen – one piece likened it to Rick’s Café of Casablanca. They wrote eulogies to this outgoing man, who made it his business to befriend regulars. Everyone who went there, myself included, has a Kamel story. And after the attack, it seemed that everyone wanted to demonstrate they knew this incredible man, who was shot down down defending his diners and staff as the Taliban entered (something which was, no doubt, a brave act). Several articles appeared which are not only eulogies to Hamedeh, but also self-referential assertions, “I was there. I knew him, I had a special relationship with him,” they asserted. Certainly, when journalists spend a significant amount of time in a particular place (one well known journalist stated in a personal correspondence she visited at least once a week for the four years she was posted in Afghanistan) it does come to feel personal. But is it right to use these personal feelings to tell a story, when the real story might lie somewhat deeper than what the journalist has experienced? And these tales go beyond Kamel’s death. The bombing is described as an end of an era, as a bursting of the bubble of false safety felt by foreigners working in Kabul. One journalist even ended her article with the statement “The Taverna attack’s statement is loud and clear. The party is over. Get Out.” It seemed obvious to me that these restaurants for ex-pats, supposedly secure, were easily penetrable and simply waiting to be attacked. How, then, is this the end of an era? How was this ever considered a party, when people have been dying since 2001, mostly Afghan, but also foreign? After all, the up-scale Serena Hotel was attacked in 2010. I cannot help but feel a bit perplexed when I read a blog that asserts “now, the war has gotten personal.” The war has long been personal for Afghans. For how long must you live in the country and know well enough Afghans for it to become personal for you too, whether or not foreigners were killed? I, who have very few ex-pat acquaintances in Afghanistan, cannot help but feel for my Afghan friends’ suffering just as strongly when an incident happens that involves one or more of them The New York Times ran a piece, ”An Attack on Westerners Helps Bridge a Divide in Kabul.” It is true that many Afghans, in particular civil society activists, are turning out in solidarity with those killed, and condemning the deaths of both Afghans and foreigners. Their feelings are sincere. But many other, very open-minded Afghans wonder, why were the alleged civilian deaths in a NATO airstrike in Parwan days before (which the Taliban cited as reason for retaliation in the Taverna bombing) not given more attention? Why was the killing of four Afghan young soccer players in Maiwand in a Taliban rocket attack at around the same time not given similar attention, nor just days later the shooting and killing of five Afghan school children playing volleyball? Many Afghans believe that there is a value assigned to life in their country, and that the value of an Afghan’s life is lower than that of foreigner’s. If so, I believe this should not be treated as something “natural,” but rather, critically examined and questioned.

A week after the attack, an Afghan and an American journalist for Al-Jazeera teamed up to report the stories of the Afghans killed in the attack, and to report their names. The initial excitement over the bombings had by then died down, and their article received competitively little attention. It only seems right to list the name of the Afghan dead here: Zabiullah Hafizy, driver ; Mohammad Ali driver; Akram, Taverna guard; Amruddin, Taverna guard; Mohammad Wasim; Taverna waiter; Haji Mohammad Amin, businessman; Wazhma, wife of four months to Haji Mohammad Amin. One week ago today, February 24, I awoke to sad news. Twenty-one Afghan soldiers were killed in their sleep by Taliban at an outpost in Kunar Province. Likely, their guards were Taliban infiltrators. Afghans have been outraged, shocked, and anguished. All ethnicities seem to be united in their sorrow. I watched throughout the day as Afghan friends’ Facebook pictures turned to Afghan National Army (ANA) heroes or images of the coffins of those killed lying in state. I was devastated to think of the loss of these young men. Several of my American friends also expressed outrage and sadness. But one American acquaintance with a military background focused only on the incompetence of the ANA. When I expressed displeasure, the acquaintance said perhaps it was poor training, but still, the main point was, they were incompetent. To me, the story is one of tragedy, loss, and perhaps the beginning of the coming together of different ethnicities into a nation. For at least some Americans, these points seem to have been lost.